Thomas Walkom: Jagmeet Singh digging himself a deep hole
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh has opened a new can of worms. His decision to bar sitting MP Erin Weir from contesting the NDP nomination in his own riding has sparked an open revolt in the Saskatchewan wing of the party.
“There’s a lot of outrage,” former Saskatchewan NDP MP Lorne Nystrom, a 32-year veteran of the Commons, told me in a telephone interview Friday.
“A lot of people who are solid social democrats say they won’t work for the federal party. Some say they won’t even vote for the federal party.”
Nystrom is one of 68 high-profile Saskatchewan New Democrats who signed a letter to Singh taking him to task for, in effect, banishing Weir from the party.
The signatories include all 13 former New Democrat MPs from Saskatchewan as well as 55 former provincial NDP MLAs.
They say the process that led to Weir’s ouster from the federal NDP caucus in February for alleged sexual harassment, as well as the subsequent decision to bar him from running as a New Democrat in next year’s federal election, was fundamentally flawed and patently unfair.
“A fair and objective examination of the details involved simply does not support either the leader’s (Singh’s) characterization of the conduct complained of or the extreme harshness of the public shaming and banishment,” wrote Patricia Atkinson, a former cabinet minister in two NDP provincial governments, in a separate letter sent to members of the federal caucus.
Indeed, the Weir affair is almost theatre of the absurd. It began in late January when Weir was accused by fellow NDP MP Christine Moore of harassing unnamed women. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, political leaders have become terrified of such charges, even those that are unfounded.
Singh almost immediately suspended Weir from caucus and ordered an investigation of the charges. Alas, no one had levied a first-hand complaint so Singh’s office went searching for someone who would.
Eventually four complainants were found, three of whom said that Weir stood too close to them when conversing and didn’t know when to shut up, while one said the MP had once spoken angrily to her.
Singh was willing to bring Weir back into the fold if he apologized contritely but changed his mind when the Regina MP dared to publicly defend himself against one of the four.
Still, Weir kept trying to get back into the leader’s good graces. He spent time taking sensitivity training and apparently passed the course. But Singh said that still wasn’t enough.
If things were going swimmingly for Singh, none of this might much matter.
But the mishandling of the Weir affair comes at a time when the new leader’s stock is not high within key elements of the party.
“People just see him as ineffective,” said Nystrom. “The Erin Weir case has brought this to the fore.
The former MP cited Singh’s difficulty in distancing himself from Sikh terrorists (which he eventually did) as well as what he called as the leader’s lightweight approach to issues.
“I went to one of Singh’s meetings in Regina and was totally underwhelmed,” Nystrom said. “Someone asked him about the economy and he ended up talking about love and courage.”
All of that might be forgiven if the NDP under Singh was doing well, but it is not. The party has done badly in every byelection since Singh became leader, particularly in Quebec.
Its fundraising has dried up. In the media, it is almost invisible. And now, in the province usually regarded as the birthplace of the NDP, there is the Erin Weir imbroglio.
“As long as Singh’s there, I won’t be involved in the federal party,’ said Nystrom. “I will not donate.”
“I can’t see myself voting against the party, but I won’t be involved.”
He said that when the federal election rolls around next year, he won’t even put up an NDP lawn sign.
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics. Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom